Fahye (fahye_fic) wrote,
Fahye
fahye_fic

[Inception: the manor house (3/3)]



(part two)


"What is it this time?"

"Do you really want to know?"

Eames appears to give the question serious thought. "You know how I love your surprises, Arthur," he says finally.

It's the two of them, and Yusuf humming away over his bottles; Ariadne refuses to be pulled away from the final alterations to the last major project of her degree, and Arthur doesn't want to give her this particular training session just yet. Not while she's still getting the hang of deliberate violence.

"No more tilting, I assume." Eames addresses the question to Yusuf, who looks up and goes through an elaborate mime of zipping his mouth and pointing to Arthur, and then makes some other gestures that Arthur can't interpret because unlike Eames he hasn't known Yusuf for years and also isn't mad.

"No more tilting," Arthur says, and tacks on, "for today," just to watch the way Eames smiles with that edge of bemused insolence, like he can't decide which of them is the responsible one.

"It's honestly tragic that I have nothing better to do with my time."

"Nobody's forcing you to stick around," Arthur points out.

"What can I say?" Eames is rolling back his sleeves. "You've spoiled me, you lot have."

"We're flattered," says Yusuf. "Or we would be, if I was not sure that your ego is just delighted at the prospect of doing jobs in a dream environment that is all about you."

"That must be it," Eames says.

Arthur's wound-up enough that there's a fair dose of selfishness in this exercise, and he's determined he won't be the first one to take a hit this time. The dream doesn't need him to be anything other than how he feels anyway, which is: tense. Impatient. Aware of where his limbs are, and the negative space between himself and Eames.

Eames blocks his first kick. "Ariadne was right," he says, his eyes narrowed at Arthur's face. "About the way you --"

Arthur's foot twinges but he follows it up, moving as fast as he can, playing to his strengths. Every time Eames opens his mouth to finish the sentence or start a new one, Arthur tries to make it impossible. He's not in the mood to talk or even to listen, not until he's purged the worst of whatever is under his skin.

He gets in close enough to slam the heel of his hand against the other man's nose, but before he can retreat Eames lifts a knee and slams Arthur over it and Arthur reaches for the ground as he falls, trying to plan his recovery, but Christ, his ribs. Just gulping in air is setting off new kinds of pain in his upper chest. He lands on his side and scrambles to his feet again with no grace at all. His hair is loose, threatening to fall across his eyes, but he's already feeling better. Sometimes he needs to use precision and sometimes he can loosen his grasp on himself, let the adrenalin dictate its own steps. It's easier like this, of course. Arthur's body is beginning to sing of its own accord.

He takes a step to the side and isn't at all surprised when he misjudges his centre of gravity; stumbles for a mere moment and then finds himself again. He doesn't laugh, but he does smile.

An answering smile comes back at him, bright and not unsuspicious. "Not in top form today, love, I must --"

Eames cuts himself off, the set of his mouth seguing into startlement, as though a new taste has crept onto his tongue and announced itself. Then he takes a quick, casual step to the side -- they could be dancing -- Arthur's smile is bordering on wide now, especially when Eames too almost overshoots his own intentional shift of weight.

"Surprise," Arthur says quietly, and attacks: this time he forces Eames's wrist to an excruciating angle and is starting to twist when his arms fly upwards, his shoulder burns out a brief reminder of exactly where it would and wouldn't like to be in relation to its own socket, and he sees the next punch coming but doesn't have time to do more than admire the sheer dirty skill that Eames is displaying even with his motor skills impaired. He concentrates instead on not breaking his arm when he falls -- again -- and on whipping together a plan for retaliation that is foiled by the sudden weight of Eames holding him against the floor.

It's somehow tempting to just close his eyes and relax, but that's not who he is, and besides, then he'd be missing out on the fact that Eames is trying half-heartedly to glare at him. Really, it is an absolute fucking crime that someone who looks like Eames should spend so much time looking like everyone else.

"We're drunk, aren't we? That's what Yusuf is doing."

"Yes." Arthur is dizzy and soft and in control.

"Well," Eames says. "I do feel that my attractive muscular frame is giving me an advantage here. You're drunk. I'm tipsy."

"Take any advantage you think you have," says Arthur. This is still a lesson.

"Take advantage?" Eames laughs and rolls aside, gets to his feet and doesn't sway at all. "No, Arthur. I'm not making it that easy for you."

Arthur stands slowly, using the time to feel out his new limitations. This fight won't be like the last one, even though most of him could be persuaded that the room is tilting; is spinning, gently. Fuck.

Eames goes on, "Maybe I'm missing the point, here, but I rather think the likelihood of anyone deliberately tampering with our blood alcohol levels is --" His face moves -- irritatingly, not in the way of a drunk person groping for the right syllable, but in the way of someone flicking through an inner thesaurus for le mot juste.

"Minuscule?" Arthur suggests, and only remembers when Eames's mouth quirks that he tends to veer French when drunk. Mal's fault, of course. His French isn't even particularly good; certainly not as good as his accent implies.

"Yes," Eames says.

Arthur frowns. Snatches up the threads of this conversation from where they are trying to drift out of order. "I want us to be prepared. To be able to function through anything."

"Whatever you say, darling."

The appraising look Eames is giving him makes his arm muscles feel fluid, ready to move, itching for contact. He can feel the negative space again, an odd gravity of sorts, the distinct absence of skin against his palms. The absence of pressure. It must be visible, feels like it should be visible, this sudden and unbearable awareness that Arthur has of himself as being perfectly alone in three-dimensional space.

Eames goes on, "You've never been the type to get drunk where other people can see you."

"That's ridiculous. Boston," Arthur says, bending down one finger. "Osaka. Hm. Capetown. Yusuf's birthday, here."

"Drinking," Eames agrees. "Not drunk."

Arthur knows better, but he also knows that he goes quiet when drunk; stays on his stool, or chair, and smiles on the outskirts of conversations and holds himself with even more care than usual. He likes and doesn't like the way it brings out the parts of him that he has to bite his tongue against, the way his everyday desires course surfacewards when normally they take the form of a deep seam embedded low and dark, with only the faintest surface flecks hinting at what could be extracted given time and sweat and the right tools. The look Eames gives him now is a fine brush, seeking, shifting some dirt away from a hint of shine.

Arthur punches him to escape it, hard on the nose again, pleased when his knuckles come away faintly red. Eames gives a muffled sigh and snaps Arthur's head sideways with a blow to the jaw, hooks a near-crippling foot into the side of his knee; Arthur narrows his eyes and wishes for furniture, for an even smaller room, because what he really wants is the harsh satisfaction of solid surfaces, and --

Ah. It wasn't a deliberate addition, but that’s an alcohol thing, apparently: a low table has appeared not far from where the two of them are wheezing, and Arthur steadies himself above his sore knee for long enough to plant a kick, show-off high, about the level of Eames's diaphragm, shoving him backwards far enough that he trips over the table and falls with a crash.

"You're cheating again," Eames coughs, rolling in splinters.

Arthur rolls his shoulders, warm and buzzing, uncaring. Eames should know better -- they both should, he and Ariadne both, with their knowing looks and their intrusive fucking trust, but Eames has worked in dreams for years and he of all people should recognise a warning when he's being thrashed by one.

Maybe Arthur does like to talk in fights, just not with words. He dreams a tall standing lamp with a cobalt blue shade and uses it to say This definitely isn't the military, Mr Eames. Eames has a nasty scratch on his neck when he yanks the lamp out of Arthur's hands and tries to trip him with it. Pas d'armes, Arthur decides, and dreams a heavy desk chair on near-frictionless wheels which he sends careening hard at Eames's legs. It's about then that he notices the lack of detail in the dojo's walls, the feeling of unease and unreality starting to make itself known through the buzz as the dream wavers and becomes less convincing. It could be all the rapid alterations, but it's probably his blood alcohol level.

Eames takes advantage of his momentary pause to shove aside the furniture and land a blow on Arthur's chin that -- "Fuck." -- spills blood into his mouth as he's forced to bite down too hard and too abruptly on his own tongue. He grabs hold of Eames by the forearm and wishes that his nails were something longer, rougher, than their usual utilitarian state. His self-image is too stubborn in dreams, it's why he's never been a forger, he averages himself out across recent memory and remains Arthur, just Arthur, untouchable and unflappable Arthur.

What. Why is he. He's distracted. No: drunk. Ivre. He can taste copper in his mouth and the dojo's ceiling is beginning to shimmer obligingly, the boundaries are disintegrating. He wouldn’t convince a child with this dream.

He hears the motion before he feels it, hears the far-off thump of his own back hitting the floor -- which is too hard, shifting metallic; it hurts like hell -- and then realises that Eames is kneeling on his legs, one hand wrapped far too loosely around Arthur's throat.

"Take it seriously," Arthur snarls, spitting blood.

The light in the room is now attractively golden, reflected off the ceiling. Eames has blood on his lips too, smudged down from one nostril, and he's smiling.

"Look at you," he says, light as anything, and Arthur really truly cannot deal with this in his present state. He doesn't know what's been washed away from his face. He can barely hold the walls up.

He dreams himself an awkward gun that backfires and kills both of them at once; if he's lucky, Eames will believe that this was deliberate.

Yusuf hurries towards him as soon as Arthur starts fiddling with a cannula. "Let me," he orders. There's an extra line in Arthur's right forearm for the ethanol solution, and a drip set up beside him. When both lines are out Arthur rolls his shirtsleeves down and fastens the cuffs, one after the other, his fingers slipping on the buttons. On close enough inspection his arms are the arms of anyone in the industry: veins speckled with scars from cannula after cannula. He can tell a tech his five best access points and three more for emergencies, and the veins on the back of his right hand were blown four years ago. He's stopped donating blood. Je ne something plus le sang. If he ever knew the verb he's forgotten it.

"Christ," slurs Eames, beside him. "S'even worse up here."

Arthur leans back in his chair. If he fumbled his cuffs then he's not risking standing up. "Sleep it off."

"Yusuf, fix a man a saline cocktail, f'pity's sake." Eames waves his wrist.

"Arthur?"

Arthur's sleeves are staying down. "Thanks. No. I'll take my hydration the old-fashioned way."

Yusuf laughs and tosses him a bottle of water, which Arthur barely manages to catch.

~

Two days after Ariadne sits her last exam they're crammed into a campus security vehicle in the middle of the University of Yusuf, going faster than they really need to. They've just come from sitting down to a truly disgusting cafeteria meal with a projection of Jeremy St John's sister, who ate most of the soggy fries off Ariadne's plate but didn't seem very willing to talk about her brother.

"Where now?" Ariadne inquires. The vehicle isn't much more than a glorified golf cart, but she's treating it like the Ferrari she's always wanted. Arthur clings to the open side of his seat and decides to enjoy it.

"The library." Eames consults a notebook. It takes a second for Arthur to recognise it as his, and another for him to pat irritably at the inside pocket of his jacket where he was keeping it.

"When did you lift that?"

"Half an hour ago," says Ariadne. "You were bitching about your salad."

Arthur shudders.

"Well it wasn't my fault," she says. "Wait. Was it?"

"Probably not, unless dreadful food was part of your initial design. Otherwise, our subject probably has exaggerated the memory of his own college food into whatever the hell I was putting in my mouth back there."

"That's my college food you're talking about." She nods. "All right. Why the library?"

Eames finishes writing with what looks suspiciously like Arthur's pen, and looks over. "If you can't get any information out of close relatives, it usually means the subject's brain doesn't tend towards sociality. It's related to theory of mind: they project their knowledge of the people in their life, but haven't got enough sophistication of interpersonal understanding to give the projections the same knowledge of them. I was on a team that tried to extract from a woman with severe Asperger's, once, it was a complete nightmare -- the projections were walking cut-outs, and her ways of symbolising information made no sense to any of us."

"Jeremy's not that bad," Ariadne protests.

Jeremy St John is the son of British expats and, like Ariadne, has just graduated with his architecture degree. He was chosen not because he's at all interesting, but because Ariadne judged him Most Likely To Say Yes When Invited Over For A Drink. What he ended up drinking was twenty parts wine to one part something concocted by Yusuf, and the four of them are currently dreaming on Ariadne's tiny living room floor. Yusuf is probably polishing off the wine.

Arthur doesn't feel bad about it. The kid will wake up with a headache in a cab heading back to his own home, and it's not like they're planning to incept him; they just need an entirely naïve subconscious to play host for a while.

"But he does think information belongs in a library," Arthur guesses. Eames nods and sways close to him as Ariadne swings right, turning them in the library's direction, and this time Arthur does feel the gentle pressure as Eames slips the notebook back into his pocket. "Thank you," he says as aridly as possible.

Eames still has the open edge of his jacket held between two fingers. "The sister could still carry on a conversation," he says. "We should try talking to a librarian."

Not in the mood for a prolonged game, nor for the interested acceleration of his own pulse, Arthur takes firm hold of Eames's pickpocketing fingers and returns them to his side of the cart.

"You think they'd have the information?" Ariadne asks. "Or they'd know where to find it?"

"The latter. Unless you feel like going through a whole library's worth of useless data, book by book," Eames says.

Unlike Heather's, this exercise is less about specific information retrieval and more about exposing hidden generalities: opinion, ambition, limits. This because Arthur, who will never again be found wanting when it comes to background research, has taken the liberty of thoroughly expanding his personal dossier on Saito, Saito's main business interests, and the sorts of information Saito is likely to soon be paying them obscene amounts of money to extract and incept. Stepping ahead alone, as a point man must.

Arthur's forte is -- yes, yes -- specificity, but he has a feeling Saito's mind runs on similar lines to Eames's; to Dom's when Dom was at the peak of his creativity and never stopped saying, yes, but what if we could? Huge ideas. Implausible demands. Most of Arthur's job is to listen straight-faced and to make things happen; to construct the path from the instability of A to the impossibility of B.

Which is the whole point of this year, of these exercises, of putting up with whatever disapproval is necessary. Arthur loves his job and is fantastic at it and now that they know what they can do, as a group, anything less than pushing at the boundaries of the possible will be boring as all hell.

Arthur is making things happen before the people who will require them to happen have thought of the request. Arthur is assembling a toolbox which he will place in the hands of his best friend.

"Are we being followed?" Eames says.

Arthur snaps around and follows his eyes. Two more security carts are gaining on them. "Oh, come on," he says. "Ariadne, if you --"

"He's not militarised! There's no way."

No weapons are visible, but the guards in the carts have their eyes fixed on Arthur and one of them is talking into a radio, so whatever the problem is, it's probably going to get bigger.

"Does this guy smoke pot?" Arthur demands of Ariadne.

"What sort of question is that?"

"Does he?"

"I don't know."

"Well, he shouldn't. Ever."

"Sure, okay, we'll make sure to leave a note in his pocket when we wake up. Dear Jeremy, Just Say No." Ariadne blinks and clenches her hands around the steering wheel, and the cart's engine starts to make a far more interesting sound.

"No more changes," Eames says sharply. "They won't be helping."

"Right," Arthur says. "He's latently paranoid. Some people are, it's just one of those things. Cannabis brings it out in their behaviour, sometimes even triggers full-on schizophrenia."

"And their subconscious will be twitchier than usual in response to any intrusion," Eames adds.

"No more changes," Ariadne echoes. "Too late for this one, though," and Arthur's back hits the seat as the engine purrs into outright noise and they accelerate.

Arthur whacks her on the shoulder. "Corner!"

"Shit," she chants, "shit shit shit," and gives a muffled shriek of delight as they swerve around it, narrowly staying on the road. Then she beams at them. "Isn't this fun?"

"Fun?" Eames yells.

"You are familiar with the concept?" she says, pokerfaced, and then pushes her foot to the floor just as they pass a sign asking them to slow down, pedestrians about.

"A brain that's both paranoid and asocial," Eames says. "What a charming lad you chose for us to exploit, Ariadne."

"I told you, he's not that bad in person."

"Mm, they're sneaky like that."

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Eames," Arthur says.

Ariadne sneaks a look over her shoulder as she pulls onto the road leading towards the fountain in the library's forecourt. "What? I'm missing something."

Arthur sighs and lifts a hand in a sarcastic wave. "You haven't noticed that I'm hardly ever the subject of any dreams?"

Ariadne frowns. "I hadn't, but now that you -- huh. So you're paranoid?"

"His projections are uncommunicative trigger-happy bastards," Eames says fondly. "And he tried pot exactly once in university, and then spent five hours barricading himself in his dorm room."

Arthur drives an outraged elbow into Eames's ribs, because he's never told anyone about that except Elise. "Not so uncommunicative, I take it."

Eames winces, holds his side and shrugs. "The Sweden job. I was bored."

"So you chatted up a projection of my sister?"

"I forged you," Eames says, reasonably. "It was the only way she'd say anything."

Arthur is trying to work out if he's flattered or pissed off, when -- "End of the line!" Ariadne shouts, and the cart jerks to a halt outside the library's grand entrance. Her hijinks with the engine have left their pursuers at a good distance, but they dash inside as fast as the revolving doors will let them, and Eames leads the way towards the main circulation desk in that huge room with the crossed stairs. Ariadne's cheeks are flushed and she waves to the projections, who are staring at them in what Arthur would say is half St John's inherent paranoia and half normal surprise at their breathless appearance.

" -- by the lifts? Thank you so much," Eames is already saying by the time they catch up.

"And thank you for being such a flirt," Ariadne says. "Where to now?"

There's a commotion on the far side of the room as the revolving door spits out security guards one by one. The librarian behind the desk frowns.

"Now, we need somewhere to hide," Eames says.

"Storage basement," Ariadne says at once. "Do you --"

Arthur nods, already moving. "I remember. Split up, lose them, meet there."

The goal of the exercise has changed, but Arthur doesn't mind; he's barely worked any jobs where natural paranoia has come to the fore instead of straight-up militarisation, so this is still worthwhile. He smiles to himself as he heads through a door marked Conservation Office. His first recruitment officer had been very surprised indeed when a peaceful street full of Arthur's projections turned into an impromptu riot. His Nana Hope had attacked the officer with her Zimmer frame.

His route is tortuous so he's the second one to reach the storage basement, which isn't a true basement because half of it peeks above ground level. Near the ceiling a short, wide window is set into one wall, grabbing at what natural light can be found. Arthur goes to lean against that wall, following Eames's example.

"Learned anything?"

"Everything's bloody cross-referenced." Eames tosses the volume he was reading into a dusty cardboard box. The room's full of these boxes, stuffed haphazardly with what looks like magazines.

"Oh, of course, Heaven forbid you should do any actual research."

Eames glances at him in the slanted shadow and bursts out laughing, which Arthur wasn't expecting. Humour itches in his throat, bubbles in his chest and warms him, and he closes his eyes and lets it spread across his face like sunlight.

Ariadne finds them like that, smiling and sprinkled with settling dust.

"My guards were like glue. I had to hide in the stacks, then use the cargo lift," she says, making a face. She crosses to the wall below the window and wriggles between them so that she's standing with both of her arms linked through theirs, her head tilted back. From somewhere far in the distance comes the sound of carillon bells, pealing out faint harmonies, and Arthur's heart falls into a metronomic pace. He's incredibly happy. Right here and now.

Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

"The job in Sweden," he says. "That was the first time we worked together."

"Yes, and you looked all of sixteen," Eames says. Buzz cut, he mouths down at Ariadne.

"I can't believe you still remember random trivia about my drug habits. I can’t believe you could forge me that well two weeks after we met."

Eames looks at him over the mussed darkness of Ariadne's hair, a look devoid of nonsense, devoid of pride. Arthur's mouth aches absurdly. He actually does think that Eames is a good enough forger to have pulled it off, so he's fishing for -- what, specifically?

"I'd believe it," Ariadne says. Her arm tightens in the crook of his and she glances from one of them to the other with a shining look that Arthur recognises from the first day he met her. It says, look what I've called into being.

The vague shape of it is there: Eames forging Ariadne on the tilted floor, their clasped hands and archeological glances, the strata of the critically observed soul, the empty pressure of Arthur's self-preservation; mirrors and mazes and water. Arthur has never wanted a blueprint to something more than he does now. What Ariadne said about love glides upwards in his mind, that she doesn't know how to fit it into her life, and Arthur leans into this dream's replica of his grey Dolce & Gabbana suit and thinks ruefully how true that is of his own life as well.

Nobody's actually said that word, love. There's a very good chance it's the wrong word entirely. But here they are, the three of them enveloped in a dream, and it's only logical that Arthur should to do something to preserve the way he feels right now, even if it requires a gamble.

"I'm out of practice," he says abruptly. "At this. All of it."

"That's what this year is for," Eames says. "Training, learning the rules, isn't that right?"

"No," Arthur bites out, wishing he'd never said anything, "listen --"

"I know what you meant, love," Eames says.

There's a silence and just like that the terrible happiness in Arthur's veins goes cool, which makes no sense, but this doesn't fit into his life and he's trying anyway and that one word spoken in a way that means nothing, like an empty reflex, shivers hopelessly under his skin. He shouldn't have bothered. He's reading too much into this.

"No. You don't know. I know how fucking good you are at your job but you can't know exactly what I think and what I'm feeling --"

Eames leans across and lays a hand across his mouth, firm and businesslike, so much so that Arthur shuts up immediately and looks around for danger.

"Arthur," he says with exasperation.

"You have to tell us," Ariadne says, "that's the point," and then the sound of an explosion tears the air and the ceiling collapses on them.

~

It only takes them a week; he thought it would be longer.

When they woke up from the library Ariadne and Eames exchanged one of their aggravating looks and then everything was normal again, apparently. Arthur's very good at normal. He also refuses to accept anything before he knows what it is, or if it's even being held out in the first place, so wherever the ball is, it's nowhere near his court.

It only takes them a week. If he were to put money on it, Arthur would blame Ariadne, becase Eames might come across as impulsive but he plays the longest cons of anyone Arthur's ever met; given the choice Eames would rather wait a year for the perfect opportunity than settle for anything less.

Though in the end it is Eames who stops him with a hand on his wrist and says, "Second layer?" without explanation.

Arthur looks at the hand until Eames lets him go. "Mine, I assume."

"Fair's fair," Eames says, but it's a bullshit argument and they both know it, because Arthur never asked for any of this.

This would be a good place to back out of the game, Arthur thinks. But Eames is far from being the only one to be afflicted with hazardous levels of curiosity.

"Fine," he says. "This evening."

He can tell it's Eames dreaming the manor house because of the way the paintings on the walls look, though if pressed he wouldn't be able to define why. He does know that Ariadne tends violently towards landscapes and Cubism.

"You don't have to do this," Ariadne says. They're standing in one of the master bedrooms, the lack of comfortable furniture elsewhere having become acutely relevant.

"I know," Arthur says. "But you both did."

They glance at each other at the same moment and Arthur has the mad urge to wave his hand between their heads to see if it's illuminated, or heated, by whatever they've learned to pass between themselves.

"Don't take this the wrong way, darling," Eames says, sending Arthur's figurative hackles sky-high, "but we're a little more prone to wearing our hearts on our comparatively unfashionable sleeves."

"Really?" Arthur says, harsh.

"Lie down," Ariadne says.

"Because whatever the hell you're trying to tell me, you could --"

"Please lie down, Arthur." The five fingertips of her small hand are against his chest, spidery, pushing. Eames is opening the PASIV case on the end of the bed.

Arthur does as she says.

"Who designed it?" he asks, just before they go under the second time.

"It was a joint effort," Ariadne says.

He wants to ask them when they started, but isn't sure he's prepared to hear the answer, so he just nods, and then they're standing in the manor's kitchens and it's far more disconcerting than if they'd ended up on the moon.

Arthur looks around, notetaking internally, before he opens his mouth. It's the same building but the interior is different, and there's a stale smell in the air like attics and sagging wood. Arthur's shirt is creased and the cuffs unbuttoned. He feels unsteady. The material of the manor seems stronger, though, everything thicker and rougher and yet -- decrepit. Abandoned and untouched for long, long stretches of time. He fights to sense the context, the particular hovering motive, that was present in both the twilight carnival and the Zen maze, but all he can feel is the same tug of gut instinct that's led him to countless lockboxes, safes, hollow books and hidden files.

He says, "We have to go upstairs."

A pause; he feels almost foolish. But he's a superb dreamer and this is why he's still alive.

"I told you he could do that," Eames says quietly.

"At least I didn't put money on it this time," Ariadne says. "Yeah. Upstairs."

By the time they've reached the door to what Arthur knows as the highest piano room the feeling has crescendoed into claustrophobia: a whole-body feeling that something's been trapped and wants to get out, and that it won't worry too much about the damage it causes once it does. The door is the strongest and crudest thing in this strong crude edifice, and Arthur could probably find his way here even blindfolded and spun thrice around the points of the compass.

A draft has crept in somewhere, and nearby the curtains puff up and snap briefly taut in a nautical billowing, caught in at the waist by their sashes, then exhale the wind and settle. Arthur takes hold of the door handle; it's loose, poorly fitted, and when Arthur moves it it wriggles around its own screws. The sensation of numb entrapment aches through the metal and into Arthur's mind and for the first time he wonders what Heather hid in that locked drawer, in full confidence that they would never see it. There are so many different sorts of secrets.

He keeps hold of the metal until it warms grudgingly beneath his fingers.

"Arthur," Ariadne says.

Arthur turns to look at her, at Eames, and in this moment realises that he missed a turnoff, somewhere along the way. There was a point when he could have given in to Eames's flirting, and another when he could have asked Ariadne out for a drink, and either of them could have been chalked up as another professional liaison, brief and intense and clean, not requiring any true investment.

The cold draft encircles his bare forearms and ruffles Ariadne's hair, and Arthur puts aside as irrelevant the wish that he could have recognised these early deadlines as they arose. It's far too late for that now, and he's far too entangled, well and truly lost in the larger design that's been erecting itself around him for months, and the architect is standing there with her hand laid against the peeling wallpaper and a careful look on her face.

Arthur wants to resent her for it. He may yet.

"I haven't decided if I'm offended or not," he says.

"If you're not at least a little bit offended, we probably haven't built it right," she says with a hint of a smile.

Neither of them are moving, as though Arthur's an animal who could be easily spooked. If he had to choose something to take offence at, that alone would do, but he is still standing here like an idiot who's forgotten the reason they wanted to enter a room in the first place, and this is much, much worse than staring at his own face in a mirror. He can't promise himself that he wouldn't jump a mile or shoot someone in the throat if startled.

"I think she knows you well enough by now," Eames says, in that deadly-soft tone that's as layered as any dream.

"Perhaps," Arthur says to the door.

The door. It's locked, but Arthur knows a thing or two about locating keys in this house, and besides: it's still a door. He could kick it down, he could shoot out the lock. He feels faintly sick at the thought, as though he's drunk again, as though half a lifetime's defences could be dismantled in a heartbeat and leave only the raw dregs of a person who bears no resemblance to Arthur at all. How do you guard yourself, when the guarding is who you are?

His hand falls to his side and clenches into a convulsive fist which he then has to release again, painfully, finger by finger. With wrenching effort he turns his back on the door.

"I'm not opening it," he says.

"I didn't ask you to," Ariadne says, so beautiful in her fierce poise. "That's not what we're asking for. That's not why we're here."

Arthur bites down on the obvious question because that’s her script, just as this is her design, and it's his fucking skeletons that are being doorknocked here so he has the right of mastery over his own words. If nothing else.

When he's silent, Ariadne's mouth thins with purpose. "The next level down," she says, "this would be a cage."

The paradox in this design is that Ariadne can say things like that, and yet be looking at him with the same caught-back yearning that she directs at Eames when she doesn't think anyone's watching. The yearning seems out of place, here -- Christ, they're in a ruin built around a tightly locked door. At least the top layer was photogenic. No neon lights, no decorative hedges; here they all are in the concrete proof that Arthur is translucent to these people, that they have been watching him and unpicking him and wanting him anyway.

The thought is -- sly, beckoning; the thought is an awareness of water down the hairline fissures of him, chilled into invisible expansion and now thawing to let air breathe upon the veins of shining stone within. Arthur is wearing --

-- no armour, here, beyond his own skin. His chest seizes.

"I don't know why you involved me in this, why you --" He won't say it, it's too absurd. He doesn't. He gestures around them, instead, at the ceiling and the winter light that spills in through the window. At the labyrinth that Ariadne has glimpsed inside him, built strong to keep things enclosed. "I don't know what you see in this that's so extraordinary."

Eames laughs. Arthur turns and hits him hard across the face before he can even think about rechannelling the desire to do so; he hears Ariadne's indrawn breath but Eames recovers the one-step distance he was forced back, and ends up even closer.

"And you're barely even lying, darling. It's tragic." Eames leans in and gives him a sharp kiss, like a question. There's a thin edge of blood to the taste of him. "Arthur. You spend your life trying your very hardest to be underestimated. And we've decided we're not going to oblige you."

That same heat, that same pinned-down seen-through feeling, trickles through Arthur, but he doesn't even pretend that it's making him angry any more. He just looks at Eames and thinks, as he did with Ariadne in her maze: I want everything that you are. The mischief and the masks and the clever dauntless patience that lies beneath.

"Jesus," Eames whispers, heated, awed.

It's fucking alarming the way you look at people.

Arthur takes a breath in. And out. And takes control.

"Is that the best you can do, Mr Eames?" he says, and shoves Eames against the locked door and kisses him. The kiss is, very deliberately, not a question. It's a statement.

One of Eames's hands sweeps up through Arthur's hair, mussing it with a surety and swiftness that suggest an action long in the planning. The implications of that pull Arthur further forward, angling his mouth, setting one thigh between Eames's legs and applying pressure. And it's incredible, it's far better than it has any right to be -- no. That's a lie. The truth is that Arthur has always known how good this would be, which is no small reason why he's never done it before. He feels sensitive all over but especially in his fingertips, his wrists, and again he puts aside the possibility of turning this feeling into some controlled action and instead he lets Eames put a thumb at the pulse beneath his jaw and kiss him again, and again, until his mouth is hot and honey-thick with the goodness of it.

"That's not even the half of it, love," Eames says finally, and this time Arthur is rocked into stillness by the terrible weight behind the word. There's teasing and there's truth, and Arthur has never listened for the difference, but now, now he might be starting to hear it.

Something odd must be happening to his face because Eames gives a sigh and steals another kiss, a gentler one. "I'll convince you," he says. "Love, I swear I will. Just give us some time."

Us. Arthur steps back, looks sideways, and still can't bring himself to speak, because Ariadne is standing with one denimed leg crossed tight over the other, one hand arrested halfway through her hair as though she can't remember what she's trying to do. As Arthur watches she exhales, raggedly, taking her time, leaving her lips parted in a way that makes him want to kiss her against walls until she's breathless and wrecked.

"Fuck," she says, with feeling. "Um. Yeah. You're extraordinary, Arthur, you're -- and if you won't admit it -- well, I guess this is where you have to trust those of us who have a little more imagination than you do."

Arthur has to smile at that. He may not have their flair for creation, but there is plenty of imagination in what he does. And despite what Ariadne said in the library he doesn't have to tell them that, if they can't yet see it for themselves. It's comforting to know that nobody understands anyone else completely, not even Eames. There are spaces between the three of them, still, where the mystery dwells.

He only tells them the end of the thought process: "This wouldn't be worth doing if we knew everything already."

"Oh, so we're doing something, are we?" If Eames is aiming for mockery, he misses.

Arthur looks from one of them to the other. Ariadne has one hand clenched around her totem and Eames's split lip is visible as a splinter of flesh, and both of them are showing everything on their faces in a way that makes Arthur feel shaken, broken open and vicariously exposed, and yet -- in a way -- certain. He knows what's being asked of him and what's being offered. It's not going to be clean, it's not going to fall easily under his control, and if all of them are very lucky then it could be amazing.

The risk is high but the benefit is many times higher. And for now he's going to let it be as simple as that.

"Yes," he says. "I think we are."


***


"So," Dom says, as Yusuf tapes the last cannula down against his wrist, "why don't you show me what you've been up to?"

"Where do you want us to start?" Yusuf lies down himself, grinning at Arthur.

Dom turns his head. "I'll let my architect choose."

"Welcome-back party in Eames's mind!" Ariadne cries, pumping her fist towards the ceiling. Yusuf presses the button, and --

"What?" says Dom, and --

"You've missed a few things," says Arthur, as they step backwards to give a fire-twirler some room.

"Arthur-r-r-r!" Ariadne gives a jolted yell, her arms round Eames's neck as he piggybacks her towards them. They screech breathless and glowing to a halt, and Arthur steps closer. Ariadne leans down to kiss his masked forehead, then his mouth, a lingering press of her painted lips. "Come on a gondola ride with us."

"Down, Columbine." Eames slides her off. "It's Cobb's first time, we should show him the sights. Introduce him to my many wonders. Don't make that face, pet, there's no need to be jealous," he adds in Arthur's direction. "You know all my wonders already."

Arthur's face hasn't changed a bit, thank you, but he would like to know what mask he's currently wearing. When he pulls it off he can see that it's a bright one, a skull in swirls of silver paint and sparkling gold against black. He tosses the mask to the ground and watches a pair of green heels crack it almost immediately.

"If you'd call those wonders," he says.

"I would," Ariadne says.

"Thank you." Eames tugs off his own mask and gives Arthur his hall-of-mirrors smile, and Arthur feels his breath pause; feels himself go loose within his clothes.

A showy groan from their left. "You three are becoming insufferable," says Yusuf. "In-suff-er-a-ble. I'm going to find that wine stall."

Dom has acquired a cup of gelato. He anchors the tiny spoon in a berry-coloured scoop and raises his eyebrows at Arthur. "You were right, I have."

"What?"

"Missed a few things."

Eames laughs. "Welcome back to the circus, boss."

As they're walking they pass a blue door, and Arthur thinks fleetingly about a red one set into a maze, and the ancient sturdy wood beseiged by his own secrets. A door to be opened, but not today.

"Come on, Arthur, it's a party. Relax," Ariadne says. She takes his hand and Arthur slows his step to match hers; looks down with a twinge of longing at the gold glitter from his own mask that adorns the riding-hood-red of her lips. "We should go dancing."

"Excellent notion." Eames drapes himself implausibly over both of them at once, his elbow digging into Arthur's neck. "Don’t worry, Arthur, love, nobody's going to insist that you do anything but lead."

They've passed the piazza full of twirling couples once or twice during training, but they've never stopped to dance. Arthur feels clear and heady with the prospect of holding Ariadne's waist and sidestepping her dress, of music and wine, of Eames's talented hands and laughing eyes. Maybe not all of him is convinced yet, but he'll give them time. He'd give them anything.

"I'm in," he says.





Further notes: The poem in Yusuf's library is W.H. Auden's 'In Time of War' (a very small section of it). But ideas can be true although men die / And we can watch a thousand faces / Made active by one lie.

The significance of the Lorem Ipsum variant can be found here.

Ariadne doesn’t know it, but she stole a lot of interior design from the State Library of NSW. Some unscrupulous person must have made her think it was all her own idea.
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